Planning for inclusive growth: What did the COVID-19 pandemic teach us?

Image: Screenshot of Murray Leibbrandt’s keynote address during the conference.

The COVID-19 pandemic has sharpened the fact that people-centred, inclusive, and sustainable development requires overcoming the multiple deprivations that people experience in Africa due to poverty, inequality, and unemployment. This calls for a strong evidence base on the socio-economic vulnerabilities at play, and a nuanced understanding of where, at a regional and local level, they are experienced most. With these reflections, SALDRU director Murray Leibbrandt, who also heads the African Centre of Excellence for Inequality Research (ACEIR), delivered the final keynote address at the third biennial conference of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) this month.

The third biennial ARUA conference convened from 17 – 19 November under the theme of “Global Public Health Challenges: Facing them in Africa”. Drawing mainly on ACEIR’s research in South Africa, Murray Leibbrandt reflected in his keynote address on socio-economic vulnerabilities to COVID-19 and the impact of the pandemic and policies to counter these.

The South African node of ACEIR is based at SALDRU, which is also the administrative hub for this centre of excellence – one of 13 established under the ARUA banner.

Pandemics and income inequality

Tackling the processes which generate income inequality is paramount for inclusive growth, Murray told the hybrid (online and in-person) gathering at the University of Pretoria.

“High income inequality hampers economic growth; it makes poverty reduction challenging; it undermines political stability; and weakens social cohesion. It is therefore vital to confront the inequality, poverty, and the multiple deprivations that are the daily experiences of hundreds of millions on the continent.”

And, pandemics worsen the situation.

“It’s the poor – the bottom 10% to 20% – whose income shares have declined through all major recent pandemics: SARS, H1N1, MERS, Ebola, Zika …”

Data from the NIDS-CRAM and the Quarterly Labour Force Surveys show that South Africa under lockdown lost almost the total number of jobs created in the previous 10 years. When the market began to recover, women remained behind in regaining employment, Murray explained. At the same time, women made up only between 35% – 39% of beneficiaries of the Unemployment Insurance Fund Temporary Employment of Relief Scheme (UIF-TERS) and COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress grant.

Pandemics and multiple vulnerabilities

A recent study of 54 African countries has shown people’s inability to keep themselves safe from the COVID-19 virus because of multiple deprivations: “In Africa, 722.5 million people live together in households with six or more people, making social distancing impossible. The majority (71.7%) on the continent lack water at their home sites; 57.4% do not have soap or washing facilities; and almost 50% share toilets with other households.”

Policymakers, therefore, need to understand who are most at risk during pandemics to respond appropriately. COVID-19 placed at risk those in high density areas, who have social-contact jobs, use public transport, and have pre-existing health conditions.

There is a distinct spatial inequality dynamic to understanding socio-economic vulnerabilities under the pandemic. Research led by ACEIR’s Muna Shifa, who is based at SALDRU, has showed these vulnerabilities to be higher in South Africa’s poorer provinces, and clustered in poorer areas within provinces.

Planning for future pandemics

Good-quality data that can be disaggregated from the national to local levels are therefore important in facing (global) pandemics in Africa – as well as in planning for inclusive and sustainable recovery and growth on the continent.

These tools for policymaking were also underlined in add-on presentations to the keynote by Robert Osei, convener of ACEIR’s research node at the University of Ghana, Legon; and Damiano Manda, the ACEIR Kenya node convener based at the University of Nairobi.

One example of ACEIR’s aim to help inform and stimulate poverty and inequality policy discussions on the continent is the centre’s series of inequality trends country reports. The first three were published in collaboration with the national statistics agencies of Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa, and the Agence Française de Développement as part of the Research Facility on Inequality funded by the European Union.

Murray pointed out that these diagnostics reflected pre-COVID-19 inequalities in those three countries. With similar diagnostics underway in other African countries, this research can also serve as a useful resource to compare changes in poverty and inequality as a result of the pandemic.

Watch the keynote address.

For more information on ACEIR’s work, and to sign-up for news alerts, visit the centre’s website.